Supreme Court union dues case could reshape labor movement

Should public workers be forced to pay union fees if they disagree with their union's political stances? That's at the heart of a case about to go before the United States Supreme Court—and it could have huge implications for millions of workers in the New York area.

Mark Janus brought the case. He has worked at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family services since 2007. He says he has paid thousands of dollars in mandatory union fees to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. If given the choice, he says he wouldn't support the union because he disagrees with the political causes it backs.

But Illinois is one of 22 states—including New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut—that require public workers to pay some fees to their unions, even if they chose not to become members.

That could change as the Supreme Court prepares to hear Janus' case on February 26, 2018.

"I decided to bring this case because I have to pay these mandatory fees, and it goes against my First Amendment rights of freedom of association," Janus told Fox 5 in an interview.

Daniel DiSalvo, an associate professor at the City University of New York, pays mandatory fees to his teachers' union and says he agrees with Janus.

"I disagree with many of the union's political positions," DiSalvo said. "This is a case about individual rights and freedom of choice of what kind of speech you want to support."

But AFSCME, the union to which Janus pays fees, says his case is an assault on working Americans.

"When you take away the unions' strength you're taking away the strength of those that are marginalized in the first place," said Stephen Mittons, an Illinois state employee and the president of AFSCME Local 2081.

Mittons's concerns were echoed by Mario Cilento, the president of the New York State AFL-CIO, which represents some 2 million organized public workers in New York—from teachers to police officers, to bus drivers and sanitation workers.

"It's an attack on [unions'] ability to have a voice in the workplace," Cilento said.

He says there's already a remedy for workers who don't want to pay for their union's political activity and lobbying because they can opt to only pay what are called "agency" or "fair share" fees for the union to collectively bargain for things like wages and benefits.

"The fact of the matter is this: if you don't want to pay union dues, you don't have to," he said. "Yet you still get all of the benefits of that collective bargaining agreement that all of your union members went to the table for."

But Janus's supporters argue collective bargaining is inherently political because it involves negotiations with the government about how tax dollars are spent.

Labor leaders say union workers, on average, make higher salaries than non-union workers, and workers who don't chip in for the bargaining process are essentially freeloading.

"What this case is basically saying is, they want to take away, really diminish the rights of unions across this country, because they know less dues money means, at some point, less power," Cilento said.

DiSalvo, who is also a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute and the author of Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences, doesn't deny this.

"Rebalancing of the political forces in New York state could free up politicians to make tough decisions on all kinds of issues," DiSalvo said.

This will be the second time the Supreme Court has taken up this issue in as many years. In 2016, the court heard a similar case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Union. but the death of Justice Antonin Scalia resulted in the court splitting 4–4. With President Trump's decision to name conservative Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy, the court appears poised to rule against the unions.

As for Janus, he says he is not anti-union.

"Unions have a place, and I do not disagree with the collective bargaining process," he said. "But I do think you have just as much a right to say yes to a union as well as the right to say no to a union, and whether you want to be a member."

Unions across the country plan a Working People's Day of Action on Saturday, February 24, to show their opposition to the case.

A ruling is expected in the spring.